The Skeleton in the Lobby

How do you communicate to prospective employees what kind of place your company really isand who would fit in?

We think of workplace foosball tables and late-night pizza and other artifacts of tight-knit tech teams as Internet-era developments. But they came way before: Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine (written about the development of a new computer at Data General) is proof of that.

One such free-wheeling tech startup, based in Cambridge, Mass., was Thinking Machines. I had a few friends who worked there, and they told me great stories. Thinking Machines had its share of people working through the night and crashing on the office couch.

The company was fueled by technical geniuses, so there were plenty of characters and colorful types. But my favorite story about Thinking Machines is the one about the skeleton in the lobby.

My friend Ted told me that if you came in for an interview, you might have to wait a while. You might even have to wait a very long while. It's not so much that the company was disorganized but that the managers got into such engrossing conversations with job candidates that interviews could go on for hours. This was no doubt intellectually stimulating for all parties involved, but probably not a blast for the person sitting out in the lobby waiting for her interview.

Making a Statement

So, for fun, the employees put a skeleton on the couch in the lobby, with a résumé in its hands. The message they were hoping to send? "Look, you might be sitting here a while, but it isn't personal. We value your presence, and we also have a sense of humor. In any case, we're aware of our long wait time for interviews, so don't be too aggravated. Look how much fun you'll have if you work here!"

Not many companies could get away with that sort of thing. But what a statement Thinking Machines made! Anyone who came into that lobby for any purpose would have to acknowledge that the company was not overrun with stuffed shirts.

If that sort of foolishness isn't your cup of tea, why, the skeleton on the couch was your signal to exit and go work for a more buttoned-down organization. As a communication method—albeit a highly visual one—the skeleton in the lobby can't be beat.

Now, what sorts of people do you think were attracted to work at Thinking Machines? Really smart ones, but something else as well: People who could take a joke.

Would that be an important attribute in an environment where product development is round the clock, where people have to work in close quarters with one another for way more than eight hours per day? You'd have to think so.

Building the Right Team

Thinking Machines was eventually acquired by Sun (SUNW). Some of the TMC folks are still there. Others have gone off to start new ventures. Do you think they created a tight network of brilliant engineers and computer scientists who are still in touch with one another today? Of course they did.

The skeleton in the lobby isn't the reason why these guys (a unisex term) are still sharing job leads and code fixes with one another. The skeleton is just one bit of evidence that in environments where the culture and the people are the key, the product could be anything.

The value isn't in the business plan or even the technology, but rather in building the right team. And what attracted those smart people? The chance to work with other brilliant, dedicated people who share a sense of purpose—and a sense that work should be fun. There's magic in that, for corporate managers who can get their noses out of the spreadsheet long enough to think about what makes a world-class team come together and stick together.

Sending the Message

I was talking to a friend about the skeleton in the lobby not long ago, and he said, "Skeleton or no skeleton, I'd give them a half-hour, and if my interview hadn't started by then, I'd be gone." That's fine, and it brings up another important thing about the skeleton: It was also a gating device. My friend wouldn't be the right type of person for Thinking Machines.

Me? I'd have to stick it out to see what kinds of people would be behind such an unusual candidate-communication vehicle. (See how HR geeks like me think?)

Brilliant people like the TMC crowd are still out there, and more of them are graduating from school every day. Does your company have the tools and, more important, the will to go get them? Does your recruiting process send the message, loud and clear, that smart and creative people are welcome? And do you have your own skeleton in the lobby—something that sends a message to people about what kind of place it is and what kind of people will fit in?

A Shift in Thinking

There's a reason why so many geniuses are at work in their own basements instead of in large organizations. Big companies do a terrible job at attracting the people who could help them the most. Many small companies are no better. Ego, process, hierarchy, and bureaucracy get in the way.

Think of the reaction you'd get right now if you put a skeleton with a résumé in his hand in the lobby of your company's HQ. Food for thought: You might be fired. What would it take for your company to build the talent engine that was in place at Thinking Machines? It might require a shift in thinking. But isn't that what the Knowledge Economy is all about?